Every time British politics takes its latest turn for the dramatic, or ridiculous, the same people drag out the same tweet by David Cameron from the last election. Glad we avoided that chaos with Ed Miliband, they chortle.
As Britain prepares for its fourth bitter, disruptive, all-consuming vote in four years (with a fifth on the horizon in the form of a second Scottish independence referendum), it’s an easy joke to make. Somewhere along the line, “ridiculously dramatic” – or “dramatically ridiculous” – became the default setting of events.
But to blame David Cameron for that is, of itself, as ridiculous as anything that’s happened. Last year, I wrote an entire book about the ways that life is becoming more volatile, more disruptive, more chaotic. The news agenda is moving faster, the economy is changing faster, even the pace of our daily lives is speeding up. Technology has turbo-charged our ability to demand gratification, political and otherwise, even as the institutions which used to curtail those impulses – hierarchy, custom, deference – have withered away.
And it is this phenomenon, above all, which explains the rise – the triumph – of Theresa May.
The Brexit referendum was, in many ways, the culmination of everything I talk about in my book. People were worried about changes in the economy – the way in which a frictionless society where people and capital moved with ever greater speed, in which technology was inexorably replacing traditional manual labour, disadvantaged them.
But they were also worried about changes in society – reacting against not just mass immigration, but the quicksilver liberalism of the metropolitan elites.
And the campaign itself was the turbocharged news agenda on steroids. Facts and allegations thrown around endlessly on Twitter. A country, and a governing party, that seemed to be tearing itself apart – not least in the chaotic aftermath of the campaign.
And then came Theresa May. Her swift success in the Tory leadership contest brought almost a national sigh of relief, a sense that things would be OK. The grown-ups were back in charge. The very first paragraph of her leadership announcement, after the ritual tributes to David Cameron, argued that “our country needs strong, proven leadership” in a difficult time; the next promised unity within the party and the nation. Her persona – as Private Eye was not slow to point out – was the stern headteacher, promising an unruly nation the discipline that had long been lacking.
This was, of course, an image that May went out of her way to cultivate. She promised that Brexit would mean Brexit – but a no-fuss, no-muss Brexit in which she would personally guide the ship of state through these choppiest of waters.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove had – before their catastrophic split – presented Brexit as an act of national transformation. Key to their plan was for Gove and Dominic Cummings to do to the Civil Service what they had to the Department for Education: drag it kicking, screaming and howling into the 21st century.
Under May, there would be none of that. The ministers she appointed were – as Tim Montgomerie has lamented on CapX – reassuring rather than radical.
And her broader agenda struck the same tone. In that totemic first speech in Downing Street, she promised to take care of those left behind under Cameron – not the blighted underclass, but the Daily Mail-reading classes who felt the world was changing under their feet and didn’t much like it.
As James Forsyth has written in The Spectator, her ambition was not to turn the clock back, but to take the edge off globalisation – to slow things down just enough for people to catch up. It’s no accident, on this reading, that her most prominent social policy has been a return to grammar schools, now mythologised as a gold-plated route to secure respectability for the children of the striving classes.
This impulse, too, explains May’s political style. One of the most striking aspects of her premiership, at least for Westminster insiders, has been her approach to news management. Where David Cameron’s team sought to win the day – win the minute – with a blizzard of micro-announcements and commentary, hers sought to stay above the fray. The grid was emptied. The Twitter notifications were turned off. Cabinet colleagues were told, very firmly, that no news was good news.
On the face of it, then, yesterday’s announcement of an early election – while the thumpingly obvious thing to do in political terms – represents a monumental act of brand destruction. The PM had promised calm after the storm. Had repeatedly rejected an early election because it would be needlessly disruptive. Had turned down Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a referendum for precisely the same reason.
And here she was, throwing everything up in the air again. Yes, she would win, some argued. But in doing so her image as “steadfast Theresa” would be shattered for good.
But that is to fundamentally misunderstand the argument May is making.
It’s an axiom of political strategy that there are only two fundamental messages for any politician: continuity or change. The paradox of our hurdy-gurdy environment is that the need for (or inevitability of) the latter has never been greater – but neither has the craving for the former.
That’s why arguably the most successful navigator of this environment has been Angela Merkel. Her promise to the German people has been exactly the same as May’s: calm amid the storm. The Chancellor has often been castigated for failing to deliver structural reform – for letting Germany coast on the labour market deregulation of her SPD predecessor Gerhard Schröder. But to German voters, that’s a feature, not a bug.
This is also why the decision to open Germany’s borders to Syria’s refugees has been so politically catastrophic. “Mutti” – “Mommy” – promised to keep change at bay. Instead, she invited it in, in its most viscerally symbolic form.
This was a lesson that David Cameron also learned. His 2015 election campaign, marshalled by Lynton Crosby, was a triumph of the continuity message. A proven and popular leader, who’d salvaged the economy, was pitted – in a relentlessly personalised campaign – against a callow Labour leader who couldn’t even eat a bacon sandwich properly. The SNP hordes, the spectre of whom drove so many wavering voters to the Tories, were a proxy for change, disruption, division.
May’s statement outside Downing Street yesterday shows that she understands this point perfectly. From the off, she stressed the “certainty, stability and strong leadership” she had provided. And the campaign – with Crosby once again at its helm – will be Cameron vs Miliband on steroids.
“The choice,” Tory MPs have been ordered to say once again, “is between strong and stable leadership in the national interest with Theresa May and the Conservatives – or weak and unstable coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn.” That’s why the result is such a foregone conclusion. May is Cameron, but stronger. Corbyn is Miliband, but infinitely weaker.
And this, too, is how May justifies another election – the turmoil of another vote, and probably another one in Scotland beyond that. She does not want this, she says. But what the Daily Mail calls the “saboteurs” within Westminster – the unholy alliance of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Lords – will otherwise tip the nation into chaos. Maybe not now, but certainly at the key moment of the Brexit negotiations.
Her pitch, in other words, is that she can only deliver the promised unity and security if we give her the mandate to do so. “If we don’t have an election,” say those Tory lines to take, “we will have uncertainty and instability.” The bargain is uncertainty now in exchange for stability later – a comfortable enough Tory majority for the PM to steer Brexit through, for her to deal with the EU with the weight of the nation’s support behind her.
And judging by the early polls, it seems like the voters agree. That, or they’re just that desperate to be shot of Jeremy Corbyn.
For those voters, May’s great appeal is that she is a still point in a changing world. It is a positioning that fits her political persona perfectly. There’s no need for spin. It’s who she is: not flash, just Theresa.
Yet this approach also points to the great challenge for May – at least once this election is out of the way.
In that leadership announcement back in June, she promised security and unity. But her third promise was “a bold, new, positive vision for the future of our country – a vision of a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us”. Again, it’s a pledge she repeated as Prime Minister.
But are those promises she can square? Can you really be radical and reassuring at the same time?
As May herself has recognised, there are an awful lot of things that are wrong with Britain, many of which have little to do with Brexit. Any number of them need urgent attention (the state of the housing market being Exhibit A).
The centrifugal forces ripping through our economy and society, driven by technology, will also demand a dramatic policy response, or in many cases a fundamental rethinking of how government operates.
On top of that, there is Brexit itself, which even if embarked upon in a spirit of good faith by both sides will inevitably be a brutal, buffeting process. Whatever deal is reached – if a deal is reached at all – there are bound to be losers as well as winners, if only in the short term.
And at some point, by the law of averages, our economy has to run out of steam, especially once we realise quite how much we have, as individuals as well as a state, been spending beyond our means.
All of those challenges don’t mean that a message of reassurance is the one wrong to send – quite the reverse. But they do make it hard to combine it with a genuinely transformative policy agenda.
Certain sections of the Tory party have already drawn comparisons between May and Thatcher – partly, you sense, because they rather like having a strong woman in charge. Those comparisons will only grow after the imminent re-run of the 1983 election.
But Thatcher’s great triumph was to combine continuity and change. In 1979, she told people Britain was broken. In 1983, she told them she’d started to fix it – but that Labour would take Britain back. In 1987, she could point to years of success, and promise more of the same: continuity via change.
Ultimately, of course, her radicalism proved too much. It was not so much the poll tax or Europe that brought her down as a yearning, among her party and the public, for a quiet life. Hence the unlikely ascent of John Major, and the unlikelier triumph in 1992 – built on a promise of competent continuity that would be shattered by the ERM debacle.
For the moment, of course, May’s focus will be on the immediate future, and in particular the chance to finally use all that disobliging material about Jeremy Corbyn that the Tories have been patiently hoarding. (There is, indeed, an argument that this snap election will save Labour in the long term, because it will force Corbyn out before the hard left can assert full control of the party’s rule book and candidate list.)
But beyond that, May faces the prospect of years in power. Those years will, of course, be dominated by the Brexit settlement, and the effort to keep the Union together.
But as well as that there is the chance, perhaps as much to her own surprise as anyone’s, for the PM to truly put her stamp on the country she leads. And her great conundrum over that time will be how to balance the examples of Thatcher and Merkel – how, in an ever more tumultuous age, to deliver the change she wants alongside the security the country craves.